Status array exercise using the Hydra model

Posted on: October 1, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

Status array exercise using the Hydra model

[Trigger warning: Inherent in the nature of the material covered in this post are topics and exercises which may be triggering.]

[Updated 3-6-24]

As with all of the exercises designed to explore critical Hydra theory (CHT) there needs to be a skilled facilitator to guide participants through each step, clarify definitions and usages of words, and insure all aspects of each step are explored thoroughly.

Exploring and understanding your status set though the lens of the Hydra model starts with a quick and simple status count and, using some basic tools from sociology, ends up by discussing the concept of master status. The exercise below will be helpful in understanding the concept of positionality discussed here.

This exercise must be seen as the beginning of many discussions about power, privilege, and status arrays and as part of a larger and even more robust discussion using the basic tenets of critical Hydra theory. This exercise is raises a very relevant and timely question, namely how does understanding one’s status array contribute to a greater understanding of the need for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) initiatives within your school or workplace and in your culture generally?

Before beginning this exercise it is important to note the distinction between primary and secondary groups. Primary groups are characterized by an emotional intimacy, and the most obvious example is the family. Secondary groups are more affectively distanced and are instrumentally based, such as in a committee meeting. This exercise is geared toward only secondary group membership.

Step One 1: A Binary look
Look at the heads of the Hydra. Each represents a significant privileging force driven by the process of toxic othering, creating and maintaining the marginalization of those who are the victims of othering. Moving from left to right give yourself a 1 or 0 based on how you believe you are viewed by others. The top score you can get is an eight. Here’s how it would look: by being male, white, from the ‘Global north’, a cis heterosexual, upper class, fully able, neither very young nor old, and a human you have all ‘1’s’; these statuses are given higher status not just in the US but globally. The lowest score possible is a 1, and would be, for example, a female, BIPOC, from the ‘Global south’, trans/queer, poor, not able in some or many ways, and very young or old. Anyone doing this exercise is human and thus scores a ‘1’ on the anthropocentrism head.

After determining your score, think about those around you or that you encounter during the day. What would their scores be in relation to yours? At this point we need to distinguish between one’s lived status array and their apparent status array. Many heads on the Hydra can be hidden, for example sexuality or disability. One’s apparent score may differ by as many as several points from their lived array. For example, one many present as a able bodied, heterosexual/cis person (that is their apparent status), getting 1’s on those two heads of the Hydra, when in reality they may be severely emotionally compromised and also be non-hetreorsexual/trans person), giving them 0’s on those heads,  that is their lived status array may be lower.

Step Two: Beyond the binary
Virtually anyone asked to do the first step of this status set exercise will reject immediately the assumption that most (or all) of these heads of the Hydra is best seen as binary.

In this step you are to explore each privileging force and describe how the ‘1 or 0′ scoring can be replaced by a much more nuanced discussion of each privileging force. For example, beginning with the first head “Patriarchy’ which infers a gender binary. This dated understanding of gender is now largely viewed as being overly simplistic and inaccurate. Considering at all of the heads of the Hydra, instead of a binary we must now see a range or a continuum. All the other heads can be similarly critiqued in short order except perhaps the last one, Anthropocentrism, since we are all human and enjoy the privileges brought on by our systemic ‘othering’ of non-human life forms.

As part of your discussion exposing the overly simplistic binary, consider these questions:

    • What are the ends of each continuum and what are the intermediate statuses?
    • What historical forces have helped define and shape each continuum?
    • How have these continua changed over time?

      This image was found by my Intro to Sociology students critiquing the Race/ethnicity binary.

    • How do these continua vary cross-culturally?
    • In what other ways can we critique seeing any of these privileging forces as a binary?

The example of Race in America displayed to the right is a good example of what can to done with all of the heads. See here for how my past students responded to this challenge.

For those wanting to maintain the theme of giving a number to each head, each can now become a number 1-10, with the top total number being an 80. In the race example ‘Asians’ might be a ‘5’ instead of a 1 or a zero. Taking this step will facilitate arriving at a total score for each individual. Of course, discussions around these number assignments can lead to robust discussions about how and why each was assigned this new fraction.

Step Three: Exploring one’s ‘status array’
When talking about statuses sociologists typically separate them into two buckets. Those which are projected upon us by the society in which we are born and live are called ascribed. The ones which we earn or otherwise acquire over time are called achieved. Just a few examples of achieved status include educational degrees, elected leadership positions, jobs and job promotions, getting married, or testing positive for Covid-19. The term ‘status array’ can be used to describe any one person, combining all their ascribed and achieved statuses. One’s status array is the major factor establishing one’s positionality. One key factor is that the importance of each head of the Hydra varies from context to context. Understanding the nature of this variability both in terms of oneself and in terms of status groups is key to effectively using CHT.

Just as we critiqued the binary implied in Step One of this exercise, we must also question the ‘ascribed/achieved’ binary. For example, social class begins as an ascribed status but as one reaches adulthood it becomes at least in part an achieved status. A second very important example is religion. Is religion ascribed or achieved? The answer to that questions is clearly culturally bound, and the answer may be quite different in the US as compared to, for example, Bangladesh.

As part of your discussion on ascribed and achieved statuses consider these questions:

  • The eight heads of the Hydra represent different major ascribed statues, but are there other ascribed statuses that hold a similar level of importance? That is, should there be other heads on the Hydra model in order to make it more inclusive?
  • Should the Hydra model be culturally specific or can these privileging forces be seen as universal across all contemporary cultures?
  • Examples of other ascribed statues include being an atheist, our culturally defined degree of physical attractiveness, and our skin tone. What other ascribed statues could we include?
  • To what extent can achieved statuses (such as education) override the salience of one’s array of ascribed statuses?
  • Under what circumstances and in what situations do one’s achieved statuses become more important than ascribed statuses?
  • As one goes through different stages of life, how does their status array vary?
  • How does awareness of one’s status array deepen an understanding of one’s positionality?

Each of the questions above merits an extended, deep, and competently facilitated discussion. There are no ‘right’ answers; the goal is to apply critical Hydra theory (CHT) and interrogate the nature of all privileging forces, the intersectionality between these forces, and how they impact our lives both individually and as interacting forces.

Step four: Master status
A person’s master status is what people first see about you when entering a new social setting. What people see when they see us is for the most part out of our control. We all engage in impression management, but some of our ascribed statuses stand out nonetheless. Understanding master status means recognizing that situationally one component of our status set may rise above both the other ascribed statuses and even our ascribed statuses. Here are some examples.

  • When a Boston born American African-American female humanitarian worker with World Vision gets off the plane in Wajir, Kenya to do work in the Dadaab Refugee Complex, her initial master status, i.e., the one most salient to the refugees looking at her as she deplanes, is that she is from the Global north, an American.
  • When a male walks unannounced into a women’s athletic locker room his master status is his apparent gender identity, not his age, race, class, or other ascribed status.
  • When a 7 foot person walks into a room her/his physical stature is initially the most salient feature noticed by those present.

Here are some questions concerning master status:

  • Statuses can have varying levels of salience depending upon the social setting. In socially homogeneous settings where one’s status set is similar to all others present, how can more nuanced differences become important?
  • In a secondary group situation where people are relative strangers to each other how long does master status stay relevant? At what point do people begin seeing a more multi dimensional picture of identities, i.e., see beyond surface appearances?
  • In any new social setting what are some ways and/or various achieved statuses can override any ascribed status set?
  • Give a personal example where you were aware that you were being interacted with based on your master status. How did this situation make you feel?
  • To what extent do you sense either micro aggressions or micro affirmations based on your master status? See here for a detailed (and personal) exploration of examining the concepts of both privilege and marginalization.

Step five: Life chances and your status set
Our ascribed statuses, as represented by our position vis-a-vis each head of the Hydra, have a massive effect on our lives. Our ‘life chances‘, a term coined by German sociologist Max Weber, are the many probabilistic factors impacting our lifelong journey as a social being. Our life chances are heavily influenced -some would say determined- by our status set. Our secondary group interactions typically begin with being seen in terms of our master status and then more so by our entire status set, both ascribed and achieved. Accurately assessing one’s status set helps provide the insight for understanding the status set of others with whom you interact, especially in secondary groups. Otherwise stated, sensitivity of the nuances of one’s own status set promotes a deeper empathy when interacting with others.

So, key questions for discussion would include:

  • To what extent have your life chances been impacted by your status array? Which ascribed status seems most important in determining your life thus far? Which ascribed status seems least important in determining your life thus far?
  • How you you image your future life chances will be influenced by your status array? Which ascribed status do you predict will be most important in determining your future life chances? Which ascribed status do you predict will be least important in determining your future life chances?
  • Looking beyond your own status array and now out at those around you, what questions can you begin to raise about the life chances of those with marginalized master statuses and/or overall marginalized status sets?

Final questions
This post began with a trigger warning, and for good reason. Done in a mixed setting, this exercise shines a spotlight on status differences, especially in Step one where individuals in a group might share their scores. Here are some relevant questions:

  • How does it feel to be a ‘4’ or ‘5’ in a roomful of ‘7’s’ and ‘8’s’?
  • How does it feel to be a ‘7’ or ‘8’ in a roomful of ‘4’s and ‘5’s?
  • In a discussion setting does this exercise make it likely that a person may feel a need to ‘out’ themself in some way in order to explain their status score?
  • How can a skilled facilitator navigate this question in a way that raises more awareness than bad feelings?
  • Should this exercise be done only in homogeneous groups (all ‘4’s’ or ‘5’s’ or all ‘7’s’ and ‘8’s’)?

Throughout all steps of the exercise there are ample times when potentially sensitive or triggering issues are discussed, and the danger exists that comments and questions of a triggering nature are raised organically.

Understanding one’s status array is not easy or painless for some. Talking about one’s status set inn a mixed setting can be awkward and even traumatizing. Exploring the questions above may provide some direction moving forward with this and other Hydra-related exercises.




Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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